As I walked out of the village for the final time, hand-in-hand with 7 year old Sorbina, I wondered who was leading who. I had just endured one of the most emotional goodbyes of my life, leaving a community that has welcomed me without hesitation and in just six weeks has genuinely become home.
Sorbina, Ganga’s neice (and Sarah and Travis’ host daughter), is a more recent addition to the village than us since Ganga adopted her and her sister, Soppana, about four weeks ago. Her mother could not provide her daughters adequate care and luckily for her girls, Ganga is overwhelmingly generous and welcomed them into the fold of his family as if they were his own children. She’s had a tough few weeks at seven years old – transitioning into a new family, going to a new primary school, and making new friends. And yet, as the tears continued to stream down my cheeks after saying goodbye to the village, it was her hand that wrapped around mine to comfort me as we left. It broke and warmed my heart simultaneously, if that’s possible.
It’s taken me a few days to write this final blog because it’s almost too daunting to sum this experience up. There are too many stories like the one above. Too many people who with limited means inspired each of us daily. There were countless times when I was rendered speechless because of the kindness of a “stranger”. But, I’ll do my best to tell the story of building a school in Jarang, the final chapter.
Our final volunteer crew was not only hilariously funny but also incredibly hard workers. They were tasked with building the toilet and septic tank, *glamorous* jobs that they tackled with enthusiasm. We also put the final touches on the walls, securing the concrete ring beam that binds all of the walls together at the top of the school under the roof and trusses. The top courses of brick and the ring beam were particularly adventurous jobs since there are no such things as ladders or scaffolding in Nepal. Instead, ladders are a few wood planks hammered together and scaffolding is bamboo that’s rigged up in a less than stable fashion. Despite my panic at the construction scene at first glance, it all miraculously came together.
The final stage of the project warrants the win/loss board for comic value. We’ll lead off with losses because while they are causing me to go gray, they are certainly comical.
- The ring beam
To my amazement, we completed the entire ring beam (a 1x1ft cement beam that sits on top of each brick wall connecting each room and the school) in one day. The skilled guys were on fire because as a reward for finishing, they got meat with dinner. As it goes in Nepal, they decided to ignore all principles that they’d applied to the rest of the school in the interest of time [meat]. Little things like using a LEVEL. Our ring beam looked like waves in the ocean. Details, it’s only CEMENT.
- Rainy season
Well, the mystical rainy season finally struck Jarang. We were due to leave town on Friday morning but after a quarter of the mountain road collapsed near the site under one of our cement trucks, we decided to send the Jeep to more stable ground on Wednesday with our belongings and leave Jarang a day early on Thursday. While rebuilding the road is possible, as Travis, Travis, and TJ did it, it’s not fun.
- Listening skills
I adore Baburam, our Jeep driver extraordinaire. Baburam has been with us for the entire duration of the project and is a fixture at the project site like the bricks or mortar. To clarify, however, when Baburam is not driving, Baburam is CHILLING. Baburam does not shovel, carry rocks, or plaster walls. Baburam laughs, shakes hands, and kisses babies.
I asked Baburam to take off first thing in the morning on Thursday with all of our belongings. We always hike for 2 hours in and out of Jarang because the roads are rough even during dry season and I wanted the Jeep to get on the good roads before it rained again. I was thinking a 7a departure sounded reasonable. At 11a, when I went home to lunch, Baburam’s Jeep was still parked in his spot. I let it slide thinking he’s probably having his last dal bhat before taking off. At 2:30p, I returned to the site to get ready for our goodbye party and winced at the site of the Jeep. I was assured that he would be leaving within the hour so you can imagine my surprise when Baburam rolled up to the party at 4p with some of his drinking buddies. He then, in Nepali, tried to negotiate with me over staying for the party. Less than amused, I pointed to the ominous rain clouds in the distance and said “Now, please”.
- The Bua Next Door
We can’t decide if The Bua Next Door, Travis’ title, should be a sitcom or a song name. We call all fathers in the village that are our parents’ age “Bua” since it’s Nepali for father. And, it makes learning names a hell of a lot easier. Lucky for Carrie and I [insert sarcastic tone], our Bua really stood out these last two weeks and came to be known to all of the other volunteers as The Bua Next Door. I don’t know if it was rain in the air, more male volunteers around to impress, or spring break 2010 but our Bua decided that he was going to drink from sunrise to sundown for the last, well, week. Thank you, Bua, for giving us an alternative to TV.
- Nepali septic tanks
In building a new septic tank for the school, we learned how villagers install toilets in Jarang. Essentially, they just dig a big square so that the waste seeps down into the ground. So, when one of the volunteers came to me to tell me that Sita’s toilet was backed up, you can imagine my horror. No plungers here. It did however lead to quite possibly my most hilarious conversation in the village thus far. To give you a bit of background, Sita and Ganga are the two host families that hosted all volunteers for lunch since their houses were closest to the project site. So, their toilets got taxed hard around the noon hour. They are neighbors.
Erin (to Ganga): One of the volunteers just came to me to let me know that Sita’s toilet is backed up. They told Sita but I’m not sure she knows how to fix it because it is still backed up. We have told volunteers to put all toilet paper in a trash bag rather than the toilet but I’m worried that might be causing the problem.
Ganga (community member voted “Mayor” by our volunteers, always carrying an umbrella): No problem, Madam. I will go to Sita’s right now.
About 5 minutes passes so I am sitting with the volunteers and chatting when Ganga approaches.
Ganga (grinning from ear to ear): No problem, Madam. The toilet is fixed. No toilet paper. Just dried stool. (Smiles proudly)
Erin (using all will power to not erupt with laughter): Thank you, Ganga.
Wins (too many to count so will list the highlight reel)
- Ganga and Maladai (MVPs)
Ganga is the clear village leader. He is articulate, has vision, and puts his community before self. The last day, we were cutting bamboo with him and chatting about the project. He said that this project has united the village – people from different castes, different religions, and different political parties. He said that he doesn’t believe in different castes or rules of engagement in a society because “people are just people”. Well said.
Maladai is the hardest working and most positive person that I have ever met. He was at the project site literally every single day doing the most back breaking work of any volunteer. When the water supply pipe would occasionally break because a truck hit it, he would hike 3 km and carry two full jugs of water, strapped to his head, to the site so volunteers would have drinking water. He did all of this with a huge smile on his face. We actually asked him to pose on our last day with a tough guy face and he came out looking much more like little bo peep than a WWF wrestler. I can speak confidently when I say that both Maladai and Ganga inspired each of us and we are better people for knowing them.
- Travis Murphy’s CD
We had about 2+ hours every day at lunch to digest dal bhat, stay out of the scorching sun, and chat. This last group, Travis Murphy had us in hysterics most lunches coming up with song titles for his Jarang themed CD (among other things). So far, he has [English translation in brackets]:
- I like big Bhat [rice]
- That’s not Dal [lentil soup] in my Bhat [rice], it’s a tear *Country version
- It’s a ramro [good] day
- There’s no need for nunchucks on a Thursday morning (see Sarah’s blog)
- Chewing on a bolt, chaina [no]
Thanks to Travis, you can enjoy the CD while on a squat toilet because he has also invented a lawn chair with a hole cut out so you can relax on the John even in Jarang.
- Man noises
Us Americans may be scared of spiders, tigers, snakes, and 3 foot rats that served as our roommates or feared guests on our way to the toilet in the night, but we stand strong against ghosts. Surya, our Nepali project manager, does not share that sentiment. He slept on the deck between Travis and TJ’s rooms and on the first night, as Travis was trying to figure out how he’d fit his 6’3’’ frame into his 5’8’’ bed, Surya asked if he could talk to him. Since Travis had to walk by Surya on his way to the toilet at night, Surya asked if Travis could make a noise like a man so that Surya would know it was him. No comments necessary here.
- The school
I had several moments where I would just look at the school and tear up. It looks beautiful. While I’m disappointed that we won’t be there to watch the trusses and roof go up, I feel confident leaving the project in the roofers’ hands. I am so proud to be a part of the volunteer crew for this project because now, Jarang has a school that it can be proud of.
- The primary school kids
I think that I’m going to miss the ten minutes each day, from 9:50a – 10a, the most. This is the time when all of the kids would arrive to school, right next to the project site. No matter what you were doing, their adorable “Namaste!” and high fives would bring a smile to your face. We all had our favorites and the number of photos that I took of my smush, Anil, is borderline creepy but they were a daily reminder of why we were there. Yes, we’re there to build a school but more importantly, we’re there to give these children the opportunity to pursue an education. To be what they want to be when they grow up.
Thank you to all of the volunteers, donors, and family members who have supported each of us along the way. It’s been a wild ride, and almost surreal now that I’m back in Delaware, but one of the most powerful journeys of my life.
In closing, the people of Jarang gave us far more than we could ever give them. They taught us that happiness can be found without money, that family and friendship gives you strength, and that a community with a united goal can conquer all. They changed us. They changed me.
Thank you to Ganga, Sita, all the Aamas and Buas that became our surrogate parents, Baburam, the teachers, the school committee leaders, and to each of the villagers that touched our lives forever. Dheri, Dheri Dhanyabad.